Death Val­ley (Cal­i­for­nia)

The Na­tional Park is Not Dead

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents -

The name Death Val­ley is syn­ony­mous with, … death, a rather fore­bod­ing topic. As my wife and I first ap­proached Fur­nace Creek Ranch, the heart of the val­ley, we were a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive. The na­tive in­hab­i­tants, the Tim­bisha Shoshone Indians called their home ‘Tump­isa’, mean­ing ‘rock paint’, com­ing from the red ochre paint they made from clay. When gold was dis­cov­ered in Cal­i­for­nia in 1848, prospec­tors tried to cross the val­ley, but never found their way out. The story goes that one of the prospec­tors af­ter be­ing res­cued, looked back and said, “Good­bye, Death Val­ley”… and the name stuck. Wil­liam Manly, one of the early prospec­tors recorded that ”this was the most God-for­saken coun­try in the world…the Cre­ator’s dump­ing ground where he left the worth­less dregs af­ter mak­ing the world”. These words seem a lit­tle harsh.

Death Val­ley is a ge­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. Lo­cated west of Las Ve­gas along the Cal­i­for­ni­aNe­vada bor­der, the val­ley is ap­prox­i­mately 70 x 225 km (45 x 140 mi) in size. To the south is the Mo­jave Desert and to the north is the Great Basin Desert. The val­ley is sur­rounded by five moun­tain ranges, with the Amar­gosa Moun­tains to the east and the Panamint Moun­tains to the west. The val­ley was cre­ated by the fold­ing of the earth’s crust, which re­sulted in ex­tremes in el­e­va­tion like Mt. Te­le­scope at 3370 m (11,049 ft) and a deep val­ley be­low sea level. Death Val­ley is known for be­ing the low­est, dri­est and hottest place in the Western Hemi­sphere. The low­est point is Bad­wa­ter Basin, which is 86 m (282 ft) be­low sea level. For the record, the low­est point on earth is the Dead Sea at 414m (1,360 ft) be­low sea level. Be­cause of its unique ge­og­ra­phy, Death Val­ley has set many records for tem­per­a­ture. In five sep­a­rate in­stances, tem­per­a­tures have reached 53.9 °C (129 °F) but they usu­ally av­er­age 47 °C (116 °F ) dur­ing the sum­mer months. On our early March visit, it was a com­fort­able 33°C (92 °F).


In or­der to re­ally see Death Val­ley, it is nec­es­sary to view the val­ley from var­i­ous moun­tain tops. Start at Zabriskie Point, eight km (5 mi) south of Fur­nace Creek Ranch. A short up­hill hike from the park­ing lot leads to a panoramic view of the val­ley, along with the bar­ren golden brown mud­stone hills. The most im­pres­sive view­point is Dante’s View, 42 km (26 mi) south. From over 1500 m (5,000 ft), you can see Bad­wa­ter Basin, the al­lu­via fan, the salt­pan and the rest of the val­ley to the north.


Fol­low­ing the 1849 gol­drush in Cal­i­for­nia, Death Val­ley was mined for both sil­ver and gold. Within four years, Panamint Springs went from boom­town to ghost town. Min­ing towns sprung up through­out the val­ley, in­clud­ing Ski­doo, Lead­field, Chlo­ride City and Lost Burro Mine. The largest town was Rhy­o­lite, near Beatty, Ne­vada. Rhy­o­lite is also known as the ‘Queen City’ of Death Val­ley, which achieved a pop­u­la­tion of 8,000, had two banks, three rail­roads, an opera house, fifty sa­loons and an equal num­ber of broth­els be­tween 1905-1911.

The rich­est min­eral in Death Val­ley was not gold, but bo­rax, the “white gold of the desert’. Bo­rax is used in the mak­ing of glass prod­ucts such as pyrex, as well as de­ter­gents and cos­met­ics. It would be the trans­porta­tion of bo­rax with the 20-mule team wag­ons that carved out the fa­mous Canyon Road.


Stovepipe Wells Vil­lage is the ge­o­graphic cen­tre of the park. It was named af­ter a stovepipe was found in the sand and used as a marker for a wa­ter­ing hole. The oa­sis is sur­rounded by the most pho­tographed sand dunes in the world. Ge­orge Lu­cas used this lo­ca­tion in the orig­i­nal Star Wars movie. If you are plan­ning a hike, bring your cam­era and lots of water.


Death Val­ley has been de­scribed as haunted and mys­te­ri­ous, de­fy­ing Mother Na­ture. A playa is a flat lake bed. Race­track Playa is 136 km (85 mi) north­west of Fur­nace Creek Ranch and in­volves nav­i­gat­ing a rough gravel road. The Playa is the site of the sail­ing stones, the rocks that move by them­selves. All size of rocks slide across the desert floor, leav­ing a long vis­i­ble trail in the muddy clay. Ex­pla­na­tions as to how the rocks move vary from the su­per­nat­u­ral to ex­trater­res­trial aliens. The most rea­son­able sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion is that the clay sur­face is filled with ice crys­tals, and the fre­quent 115 to 145 kph (70 to 90 mph) winds move the rocks over

the playa. Re­mem­ber, the stones only move un­der per­fect con­di­tions, which can be a rare event.


This cas­tle is lo­cated in Grapevine Canyon, 85 km (53 mi) north of Fur­nace Creek Ranch. The cas­tle is more like a Euro­pean villa, built in the Span­ish Pro­vin­cial mode. The cas­tle was the idea of the leg­endary Wal­ter Scott or Death Val­ley Scott, who in his youth, worked in Buf­falo Bill’s Wild West Show. The 2.5 mil­lion dol­lars it took to build the cas­tle is ru­mored to have come from a se­cret gold mine, but it ap­pears that a busi­ness man from Chicago, Al­bert M. John­son, re­ally owned and fi­nanced the project.


This is not a real golf course. The name comes from the idea that only Lu­cifer the Devil could play on this sur­face. As Lake Manly slowly evap­o­rated, a salt pan was left on the val­ley floor. Tech­ni­cally, the rock salt is a halite crys­tal for­ma­tion and pro­vides a unique hard land­scape. Do not con­fuse the Devil’s Golf Course with the playable 18-hole golf course at Fur­nace Creek Ranch.


On ar­riv­ing at Fur­nace Creek Park, visit the Na­tional Park Vis­i­tor Cen­ter/Mu­seum and pick up some read­ing ma­te­rial. If look­ing for a full ser­vice park, there are only 41 sites in the en­tire val­ley, in­clud­ing Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Fur­nace Creek Ranch. We booked ten months in ad­vance. Across from Fur­nace Creek Ranch is Sun­set Camp­grounds op­er­ated by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, hav­ing 270 sites for dry camping. Fur­nace Creek Ranch is op­er­ated by Xan­teera Parks and Re­sorts, with the vil­lage hav­ing many ameni­ties. The vil­lage has a gen­eral store, restau­rants, a sa­loon, swim­ming pool, golf course, Bo­rax Mu­seum, gas sta­tion, post of­fice, ten­nis courts, horseback rid­ing and 214 ho­tel rooms/cab­ins. If in­ter­ested, the Inn at Fur­nace Creek, built in 1927, is a four di­a­mond ho­tel/re­sort.

Death Val­ley is far from dead, nor is the val­ley the “Cre­ator’s dump­ing ground.” The val­ley is beau­ti­ful, bar­ren, mys­tic and peace­ful. Af­ter a week, we still had not vis­ited the Artist Drive, Ube­hebe Crater or the Mo­saic Canyon. Our next visit is not too far in the fu­ture. Clock­wise from top left: Zabriskie Point - the Bad­lands, Den­nis Be­gin play­ing golf on the Devil’s Golf Course, Bad­wa­ter Basin, 282 feet be­low sea level and Rhy­o­lite Ghost Town.

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